The Tower by William Butler Yeats

‘The Tower’ is one of Yeats’ well-received poems, written during his matured period. It is a powerful poem that talks of his deteriorating physical health and his growing passions in political and personal matters. The poem was included in “The Tower” published in 1927, Yeats’ first major collection as Nobel Laureate after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1923. The title of the poem and the book refer to Ballylee Castle, a Norman tower that Yeats purchased and restored in 1917. The Tower sound like a companion piece to “Sailing to Byzantium,” for the poet talks of old age, and his view of an ideal man.

The Tower by W. B. Yeats

 

Summary of The Tower

‘The Tower’ begins with the poet’s reluctance to accept his old age, but ends with a more calming and assertive note of following his inspirers Burke and Gratton.

‘The Tower’ by W. B. Yeats describes the absurdity of becoming old. While he is getting weaker physically, he feels growing more passionate and inspired than ever. Nevertheless, he is aware that it is time to say goodbye to poetry and choose reason, to match his age. He walks to and fro atop the tower and remembers the wealthy Mrs. French, a legendary peasant girl, and the character Hanrahan created by him. He also thinks of some people who could be cheered with neither love nor music. One such man is the former master of the poet’s house. He also thinks of those who walked around the house dressed for war.

The speaker is curious to know if the people he remembered so far too felt the same way as he feels now. Failing to get a satisfactory answer, he enquires Hanrahan, whether one thinks more often of a woman won or lost. For he thinks a woman lost is an irretrievable mistake. As he reaches the third section, his understanding of his age looks much stable. The speaker wows to follow Grattan and Burke. Further, he expresses his contempt for Plato and Plotinus, for he doesn’t want to take any sides. He concludes stating that he is ready to die with some ancient poetry and the love of women. Also, he finds it to be the right time to prepare his body and his mind for death, either his own or those people he has loved.

Read the full poem of The Tower’ here.

 

Themes in The Tower

The central idea or the theme of ‘The Tower’ revolves around the poet’s reaction to his own physical infirmity brought by time. By the time, when he realized that his strength is deteriorating, he was young and matured in his mind, with afresh imagination. The poet enquires about the people who spent their life in love and passion if they too felt the same way as the poet at old age. Though he seems to be annoyed of this inevitable old age in the beginning, he comes to reconciliation, in the final section, where he presents his “Will” or “Political Testament”

 

Form and Structure of The Tower

The poem, ‘The Tower’ doesn’t follow any set for. The lines and stanzas are written in various lengths. Structurally, the poem is divided into three sections. The first section comprises 17 lines, serves as an exposition, talking about the poet’s discomfort over becoming old. The second section comprises 13 eight-line stanzas, validates, and questions the life of people who lived before him. Like in his other poemsByzantium’ and ‘Prayer for my daughter’, in the second section, he followed the rhyme scheme “AABBCDDC.” The third section, which comprises four stanzas of various lengths, expresses the poet’s passive approach and acceptance to old age and death.

 

Analysis of The Tower

Section I

What shall I do with this absurdity —

( . . . )

A sort of battered kettle at the heel.

The first section of the poem ‘The Tower’ deliberates on the poet’s dissatisfaction with the old age. He uses a worried tone to present the contrast between his old body and his young spirit. His disappointment is revealed in the image where he compares old age some annoying thing that is tied to a dog’s tail. The poet feels his eyes and ears, his imagination and passions are stronger as ages pass. He finds them being stronger an emotion to ward off. He also feels in himself as if his time has come to bid adieu to poetry, and read the masters Plato and Plotinus. Otherwise, he thinks his name will be dragged in the mire.

 

Section II

Lines 1 – 25

I pace upon the battlements and stare

On the foundations of a house, or where

( . . . )

Clipped an insolent farmer’s ears

And brought them in a little covered dish.

Section two of ‘The Tower’ is the longest and most interesting part of the poem. It talks about the decreasing aristocratic ideal which is also addressed by the poet in his other poems, A Prayer for My Daughter. As the section opens the poet is pacing on the battlements of the Tower looking at the trees near and asks them about the ups and downs they have witnessed. At this time he recalls the time when Mrs. French who lived near the tower and extremely aristocratic that even before she could speak, her wish was granted by her devoted followers.

 

Lines 26 – 57

Some few remembered still when I was young

A peasant girl commended by a song,

( . . . )

One inextricable beam,

For if I triumph I must make men mad.

In the lines between 26 and 57, the poet recalls a peasant girl he heard of at his young age.  Her name was Mary Hynes, and her beauty was admired and many sang songs. One of them is a blind poet named Raftery. In his songs, he glorified and said that if she goes to a fair, farmers at the fair would jostle to have a look at her. The people who read or heard of her beauty through his poems were made desperate to have a look at her. The poet is curious to see how a man blind himself could picture the beauty of a girl such as vividly. But he is convinced when he thinks of Homer who captured the beauty of Helen that became the cause for many.

 

Lines 58 – 73

And I myself created Hanrahan

And drove him drunk or sober through the dawn

( . . . )

Hanrahan rose in frenzy there

And followed up those baying creatures towards —

In the lines 58 to 73 the poet talks of the character Hanrahan, created by him. He made him a man drunk or sober through the dawn. Due to “the horrible splendor of his desire” he “stumbled, tumbled, fumbled” and broke his knees. He wrote about Hanrahan twenty-five years ago and recalls now. He, who should have gone to meet his beloved Mary Lavelle, his beloved is made to chase a magic hare by the old juggleries. They delayed his departure and the tryst, making him chase the “baying creatures.”

 

Lines 74 – 105

O towards I have forgotten what — enough!

I must recall a man that neither love

( . . . )

Go therefore; but leave Hanrahan,

For I need all his mighty memories.

In lines 74 to 105, the poet talks about the people who could be cheered neither with love, nor music nor the pleasure of revenge. These people not only during their but also when they die, die unhappily. The poet gives an example of one such man, who was once the owner of the Tower which now belongs to the poet. As he thinks of the wonders if all the people he discussed early were also unhappy as the poet in their old age.

 

Lines 106 – 121

Old lecher with a love on every wind,

Bring up out of that deep considering mind

( . . . )

And that if memory recur, the sun’s

Under eclipse and the day blotted out.

In the last two stanzas of the second section, the poet questions “the old lecher”, Hanrahan, the character he created. He would like to ask, “Does the imagination dwell the most/Upon a woman won or woman lost?” As he questions him, he remembers his own hopeless love for Maud Gonne and realizes that imagination dwells most upon the woman lost. When the memory of the woman one could not get is revived, “the day is blotted out.”  The poet concludes the section saying that unrequited love or the woman lost inspires strong passion. At the bottom of the loss, the reason is often either lack of courage, or “some silly oversubtle thought.”

 

Section III

It is time that I wrote my will;

I choose upstanding men

( . . . )

Or a bird’s sleepy cry

Among the deepening shades.

The third section of ‘The Tower’ presents the transition of the poet’s mind and the acceptance of old age. The short lines in this section indicate his calmer thoughts. He expresses his wish for writing his will. And, the first thing he wants to bequeath is his pride, to the young generation. He stands by the courageous people like Burke or Grattan who were not bound to any cause of the state. He also declares that he neither cares for Plotinus nor Plato for he has nothing but contempt for them. The poet, like Faust of old, thinks of the infinite power of the human mind. Therefore, Yeats’ decides to compromise with his age with things of art, memories of love, and poetic imaginings.

 

About W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born as the eldest son of John Butler Yeats on June 13, 1865. He was one of the key figures of 20th-century literature. He helped to found the Abbey Theatre. His commendable contribution to poetry earned him appreciation by many great poets of the time. In his later years, he served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State before his demise on 28 January 1939.

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